Doc Martin still charms after six seasons

British TV shows enjoy success all over the world. Downton Abbey is the most notable contemporary example, following in the footsteps ofBrideshead Revisited and Upstairs Downstairs. But those are all highbrow costume dramas that deal with social change before and after WW I. You feel smarter whenever you watch them – and classier. After you watch Doc Martin I’m not sure you feel smarter, and some episodes you definitely don’t feel classier. Amusing, sad, and heart-warming, ITV’s Doc Martin is fun and addictive, but it’s not easy to explain why.

The hugely successful series launched in 2004 and has recently completed its sixth season. A seventh is in development. It is filmed in a picturesque Cornish seaside village called Port Isaac (renamed “Portwenn” for the show). The story is centered on the character of Dr. Martin Ellingham, played by Martin Clunes, a curmudgeon of a surgeon in London who unfortunately develops a severe phobia of blood. Ouch. Unable to function any longer as a high powered surgeon, Martin flees to Portwenn to take up residence as the village GP, where he tries to keep his fear of the red stuff a secret. The backstory gives him fond childhood memories of the place, where he spent summers with a beloved aunt.

As usual in such TV villages, Portwenn is full of quirky characters who make the protagonist’s life miserable. This is compounded by the doctor/patient relationship dynamic. Odd characters are constantly asking the good Doc for medical advice, and Martin always responds with what has to be the worst bedside manner in the history of TV physicians. But Portwenn/ Port Isaac is a quirky character all its own, and part of the show’s popularity is the fairytale village where it is shot. The town is a preposterously precious little place, full of 18th century stone houses, narrow lanes, gardens, and spectacular seaside cliffs. In fact, as I became addicted to the show I decided I just had to visit the little town in-person, so I did.

A few months ago I traveled to the UK and drove to Cornwall to visit Port Isaac. The show is shot during the summer, when the weather is nice. In January it’s not nice. The B&Bs online imply that the place is fully booked in the summer. When I got there it was deserted, freezing, and wet. So if you want the Doc Martin experience, go in the summer. But you’ll have to wade through the other fans hoping for a few pics of Martin Clunes in front of his stonehouse surgery (which is actually a pricey B&B).

Clunes is the real strength of the series. His Martin is conscientious, competent, energetic, fussy, stiff, and often just obnoxious. The creator of the show, Dominic Minghella, has left open the suggestion that Martin has high functioning autism or Asperger’s. Whenever Martin should respond with ordinary human emotion he tends to offer a medical diagnosis and a comment about the person’s appearance or body odor. Usually the person storms off in a huff. But for us it’s fun anticipating the latest insults from Martin – almost every episode he yells at some unfortunate recipient, “You idiot!”

Martin’s love interest, the village school teacher Louisa, inexplicably loves him despite his gruff manner, and the writers keep us in suspense guessing whether Louisa and Martin will ever get married. Their on again, off again relationship is delightful and surprisingly affecting for a light comedy.

Most episodes involve Martin solving an obscure medical mystery while dealing with his blood phobia and inability to relate to others. But the quality of writing, spectacular locales, and excellent ensemble of actors, keep the show fresh and entertaining. Ratings have built over the years and show no sign of slowing. In the UK the show has averaged over 10 million viewers per episode and it has had strong ratings on PBS in the U.S. A measure of the show’s success is that it is now seen in 33 countries, either the original or in a locally produced version (Doctor Mateo in Spain). It’s even shown in Saudi Arabia. No, really.

Clunes has said that the seventh season will probably be the last because it’s difficult to come up with new diseases for Martin to figure out. Maybe. But I and all the other fans would love to see more of the story. Even though Martin can be abrupt and gruff he’s adorable, and Portwenn is utterly enchanting. When the series inevitably ends I may have to visit Port Isaac again. During summer.


 Port Isaac

Doc Martin Port Isaac

Doc Martin Port Isaac

Port Isaac

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